honestpuck writes "Linguistics has long been an interest of mine, and one of my fields of study, and I've recently read two good books that combine linguistics with other topics. The Keys of Egypt is the tale of history's most famous decoding task, the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics and In The Beginning is the story of the King James Bible, the history, theology, politics, linguistics and technology that surrounded Bible translation and printing in Renaissance Europe and England." Read on for his combination review of two books that might inspire your curiosity, no matter how far from the usual Slashdot fare.
HieroglyphsThe Keys Of Egypt was written by husband-and-wife archaeological team Lesley and Roy Adkins. It is subtitled "The Race to Crack the Hieroglyph Code," and starts with a short chapter that introduces the eventual winner of that race, the Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion, and mentions his most serious rival, the Englishman Thomas Young.
The book goes on to examine Napoleon's expedition to Egypt which both brought the Rosetta Stone to light and started a period of French and European fascination with ancient Egypt. These were the two catalysts for the riddle's eventual solution.
This is a well-written book that looks at the struggle and race for translation and the political and academic machinations (often both combined) that surrounded Champollion. It is essentially a biography of Champollion, who grew up and worked amid the turmoil of the Napoleonic era. The story is a compelling one and the authors have done well to make it at times fascinating.
As a genre I find that 'scientific biographies' tend to be a little overblown and flowery, the writing not quite precise -- and Keys suffers from these shortcomings. I also felt that while the book is subtitled "The Race to Crack the Hieroglyph Code" it really only focuses on Champollion, while he is the eventual winner a little more effort in examining the others involved in the effort would have improved the book.
The BibleIt can be argued that the King James Bible has had as large an effect on our language today as the work of Shakespeare. 'In The Beginning' has at its core the story of biblical translation, a topic you may think anything but fascinating. McGrath has done a good job in making this a compelling book.
He starts, as one may expect, with the story of Gutenberg and his first printed bibles. Before arriving at the King James he covers Martin Luther, the rise of Protestantism in Europe, Henry the Eighth, more than one hanging, and several other bible translations and translators. Along the way he manages to dispel a few myths I had held about biblical translation and the King James in particular. I always thought that it was the King James version that introduced the idea of the main body in roman type and words inserted to clarify meaning in italics, but it was actually an earlier English translation known as the Geneva Bible that first implemented this idea. After explaining the technology, theology, politics and linguistics nuances that led King James to permit (but not fund) a new translation, McGrath tells us how the translation was accomplished organizationally before examining some of the nuances of the translation itself. Some of the language in the King James was archaic even when it was published; translators had been instructed to lift from previous translations all the way back to the partial translation of William Tynsdale published 90 years earlier, and this at a time when the English language was going through the huge changes of the Elizabethan era. McGrath examines this aspect, pointing out such things as changes in verb endings and personal pronouns.
I found the book patchy. McGrath does a much better job covering the story up until the translation. It is harder to get a feel for how the translation was accomplished and how the various teams worked, and when he comes to examine some of the nuances of the translation, the text makes much harder going. If this had not been a part of the topic that interested me a great deal, I may have lost interest.
Both books may have their flaws but both are well worth the read. It is important to realise the history of science and language that have brought us to our current place and both these volumes do a good job of illuminating the past efforts of men who worked under entirely different pressures than we find today.
You can purchase both In The Beginning and The Keys of Egypt from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.